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An Introduction to OSHA
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), passed by Congress in 1970, establishes the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Department of Labor. The Act sets minimum standards for working conditions, which are enforced by the inspection of workplaces and the levying of fines of up to $1000 for each violation, up to $10,000 if the violation is willful or repeated. Any worker covered by OSHA can file a complaint and request an inspection of his or her workplace. (State, county and municipal workers, and some household workers are not covered.) An OSHA inspector will tour the plant with representatives of workers and management and, if deemed appropriate, will send a Citation listing violations and the deadlines for correcting them to management and to the person who filed the complaint. However, management can appeal the violations, fines and deadlines, whereas workers can only appeal the deadlines.
Both OSHA and its research arm, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), are underfunded and understaffed, to the extent that it would take 65 years to inspect every workplace just once. Many inspectors tend to favor the company’s point of view, labeling many hazards “nonserious”. The average fine is less than 4 $28. Corporations exert pressure on NIOSH to propose less stringent standards, and can force delays in enacting those standards that are approved. (For example, a new asbestos standard was approved in 1972 but the implementation date is not until 1976.)
These weaknesses are built-in. The standards are written by scientists and bureaucrats who won’t suffer if the standards are too weak; inspectors don’t have to spend much time in the plants where hazards are overlooked, and management can ask for exemptions from particular standards and appeal violations. However, OSHA standards can be an effective weapon for workers to use for educational purposes and in building support for health and safety struggles. To use OSHA effectively, workers must know the law thoroughly and be willing to use it aggressively.
The above information was taken from How to Use OSHA, written by the Occupational Safety and Health Project of Urban Planning Aid, Inc. (639 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Ma. 02139; telephone (617) 661-9220). The project is a nonprofit organization, established in 1969, which provides resources and information to workers who want to organize around health and safety.